"Nice to see that you're alive and well, Shikamaru." Kakashi said kindly, his eyes not smiling. "Few in your position would have made it this far."
Shikamaru staggered back, the pain in his head flaring up with a vengeance. He couldn't believe it, it couldn't be real. His eyes darted to the copy-nin's hand, the same one that in his dream had dealt him that killing stroke. For a moment he saw his own blood spurting before his eyes once more, covering the walls, flooding the floor, drowning him—but to his surprise and relief the hand was empty and the terrors of his dream faded once more into the recesses of his mind.
"Well you've certainly done well for yourself." Kakashi continued with his usual aloofness, casually strolling into the opulent chamber and taking a seat on one its many sofas. His single dark eye shot a glance at the still petrified Shikamaru.
"You can relax now, I think." He said in a knowing voice, flicking open a small book. "If I had been sent to kill you, you'd already be dead."
Kakashi's dark tone made Shikamaru's heart skip a beat, but the elder jonin's words were true. He could have easily killed Shikamaru in his sleep. But if death wasn't his mission then what was?
"Please, sit." Kakashi said as he flipped a page, "We have certain matters to discuss."
"Certain matters?" Shikamaru repeated, cautiously taking the couch across from him.
Just because Kakashi wasn't here to kill him didn't mean that he was out of danger yet, Shikamaru thought, glancing at him warily. As the copy-nin closed his book and casually slipped it back into his pouch, the cloaked man's words echoed in Shikamaru's mind.
Gaara and Tsunade. Gaara and Tsunade. Gaara and Tsunade!
"Officially I'm here as Konoha's newest envoy to Suna." Kakashi replied, "Unofficially I am here on Lady Tsunade's orders."
"Orders?" Shikamaru smiled wryly, "Is she worried that I've become a liability?"
The look in Kakashi's eye hardened.
"She's concerned for your safety." He answered tersely, "And she's not the only one."
Reaching into his pouch he pulled out a packet of letters and set them on the table between them. Shikamaru slowly pulled the letters towards him and felt his anger lessen somewhat. Atleast they hadn't forsaken him. Not yet anyway.
"Honestly I'm somewhat surprised, Shikamaru." Kakashi continued.
"For someone as smart as you, you're acting like an idiot."
At that, the look on Shikamaru's face hardened, "Excuse me?"
"You're so preoccupied with the fact that you were set up that you haven't even thought to consider why."
"Why?" Shikamaru's eyes flared with rage. "I've been asking that every day since the trial, Kakashi-sensei. Every day that I've been exiled from my home for crimes I didn't commit. Every day that I wake all alone in this room, I ask myself why."
"Self-pity will get you nowhere." Kakashi matched his gaze. "I'd have thought you would have learned that by now."
"Is this why you came to Suna?" Shikamaru hissed, "To taunt me?"
"No." came the calm reply, "I'm here to help."
"Well I don't need your help." Shikamaru bit out. "Yours or Tsunade's. So you can go back and tell her to shove it. From this day, Shikamaru Nara is on his own. "
Kakashi sighed and began to stand up. "Very well then, I see there's no reasoning with you."
"I was past reasoning when the doors of Konoha closed behind me forever."
"All the same, I have one final message to deliver. And this one you'll want to hear."
Shikamaru's eyes darted to Kakashi's hands, the bloody kunai drifting into the forefront of his thoughts once more. But the elder jonin made no move to strike. Instead his eyes watched him for a reaction as he spoke.
"Official ANBU records state that you were in the interrogation cells for four hours," Kakashi said, "After which time you were handed over to the council for sentencing."
"I remember." Shikamaru muttered bitterly, memories of his agonizing torture flooding his thoughts. "So what?"
"So," A dark shadow formed under Kakashi's gaze, "You were gone for a full 3 days after you were apprehended and there are no records indicating what happened during that time."
Shikamaru started, as far as he could remember he had been knocked out and had awoken shortly after in the ANBU holding cells. He couldn't have been gone for three days. That was impossible.
"You don't remember anything, do you?" Kakashi asked.
"No…" Shikamaru muttered uneasily, "But that's…that's impossible. Are you sure?"
"Nothing in our world is for certain, Shikamaru." Kakashi said darkly, "But Ibiki looked into it personally, so I doubt he'd make it up."
"But if that's true…" Shikamaru looked at Kakashi nervously, "Then what happened to me?"
Kakashi's eye glinted, "That, Shikamaru, is the real question."
For once, Shikamaru's mind cleared enough for him to notice the many threads dangling all around. Threads so thin and intricately interwoven as to form a spider's web with him at its center. Kakashi was right, he had been acting like an idiot. Whatever was happening to him, whatever the reason, it was clearly bigger than just a matter of betrayal. There was something sinister at work here. A plot that was meticulously planned and perfectly executed. But who was responsible?
Gaara and Tsunade! The cloaked man's voice shouted in his mind. But was it really them? Or was this another part of the web of lies that had been spun around him. Another trick to further entrap him.
Or maybe it was the truth. What was real and what was fake? Someone had to know. Someone…
The moon outside was warm and glowed with a strange intensity that could only be found on cool desert night such as this. It was quiet. The vicious winds that normally battered Suna were nowhere to be heard. Everything was peaceful, calm, tranquil. Everything but Shikamaru.
His mind was in turmoil. The pain in his head steadfastly refused to go away and in fact seemed to grow the more he tried to reason out his predicament. Kakashi's words had gotten him thinking. For the first time in days he attempted to comprehend the plot that had so utterly ensnared him. But no answers would come. The more he pondered, the more lost he felt. Once more his mind was in disarray, unable to discern between what was true and what was false.
Trapped in his musings, he trudged the deserted halls of the palace. Waiting for this world to make sense again. Wandering aimlessly, his feet seemed to lead him to a room at the far end of the building.
Even before he knocked, he knew it was Temari's room. Even before he heard her tired voice ask and his own reply, he knew what had led him to her doorstep. Whatever was happening to him, he couldn't find the answers on his own. He needed help—her help.
Whether she would be willing to help him or not remained to be seen. But deep down Shikamaru knew that this was his only hope.
"What do you want, Shikamaru?" She asked quietly, tension resounding in her voice.
"I want to apologize, Temari." He said, sighing inwardly, hating this situation and hating having to lie to her. "Can I come in?"
"It's late, Shikamaru." She replied, her hand hovering above the doorknob. "Please, go away."
"Temari, let me in." He placed his hand on the other end, but it was locked, "I didn't mean to hurt you. Please just let me explain."
"Tch." She smirked, a tear running down her cheek. "You give yourself too much credit, lazy-ass. I'm done crying over you. It was just the heat of the moment, that's all. So there's nothing to explain. It's fine. Really."
"Temari, I meant what I said before." Shikamaru said, his resolve weakening, "I do love you. I never stopped loving you."
Temari felt her heart wrench in her chest and the tears began to swell in her eyes. She tightened her fists. Why? Why was she always so weak around him? So helpless. Why couldn't she just let it go?
For a while Shikamaru stood there in silence, not sure whether to stay or leave. He didn't want to hurt her anymore that much was true, but with all that had happened to him he didn't know if he still loved her. Seeing Temari again had brought back old memories, but was it love? Or was it simply an illusion? A ghost from the past.
Was it just another lie? One of the many that now swarmed around him. He didn't know for sure. But as the door opened and Temari rushed into his arms, he wanted it to be true.
The bright desert moon slowly vanished into the storm clouds gathering overhead. Thunder rumbled in the distance, momentarily jerking Shikamaru out of his restless slumber. The storm had awoken the persistent feeling of dread within him. He glanced around nervously. In his half-waking state his hazy vision fell upon Temari's sleeping face pressed serenely into his chest. She sighed softly as she felt him move and Shikamaru felt himself smile. Perhaps it could be true, he thought, brushing a stray hair out of her eyes. Perhaps with her there was nothing to fear.
Leaning back into his pillow, Shikamaru felt sleep take hold of him once more. Only this time his dreams were peaceful. This time they were of Temari.
Lightning flashed much closer this time and the clap of thunder came all too quickly. In the momentary illumination a cloaked figure was shown standing at their bedside, his dark eyes watching intently.
Author's Note: It's been wayy too long, I know. I apologize! Life has been hectic. Anyway here it is. Please Review and let me know what you think and I promise the next chapter won't take this long! All comments are welcome and greatly appreciated. Nothing inspires me to write more than hearing from my readers. Hope you enjoyed the story so far and stay tuned for the next update. Thank you!